Saharawi fighters have engaged Moroccan forces for the first time since 1991. The moribund peace agreement is in danger of finally expiring. What has happened and why?
In late October, civilians from the refugee camps began a peaceful blockade of an illegally-built road at Guerguerat between the south of the Moroccan occupied part of the Western Sahara and Mauritania. Last week, Morocco sent in troops to drive away the protestors. By doing so it comprehensively broke the terms of the ceasefire which forbids armed forces from entering buffer zones between the parties. In response, nearby Polisario forces opened fire in order to evacuate the civilians. Later, Saharawi fighters attacked a number of positions along the Moroccan defensive wall.
The breakdown of the ceasefire agreement has a number of causes, among them:
• In 2016, the UN said it would send a technical commission to mediate the situation at Guerguerat after Saharawis protested over Moroccan moves to tarmac and formalise an unofficial border crossing. Four year on nothing has been done.
• In the meantime, Morocco has ramped up traffic through the crossing, using it to export resources stolen from the Western Sahara. The Saharawis fear this theft and export will increase exponentially with the entry of Middle East Gulf states into the occupied territory.
• UN failure to address the situation at Guerguerat exemplifies the broader failure of the Security Council to enable a Saharawi referendum to determine the future of their homeland, the very basis of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. At its latest meeting, the Security Council resolution failed to even mention the referendum. The post of Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for the Western Sahara remains vacant after 18 months, meaning no negotiations have taken place. The UN monitoring force MINURSO is toothless, leaderless, hamstrung by Covid restrictions, and its mandate needs urgent overhaul.
• Confidence building measures such as family visits between the refugee camps and the occupied territories have been abandoned by the UN.
• The Security Council has failed to adequately address the need for human rights monitoring in the occupied territory.
Among the dangers posed by the current crisis are these:
• Resumption of full-scale hostilities between the parties and a consequent further deterioration of the geopolitical situation in the whole of the Maghreb.
• If Morocco is permitted to control Guerguerat, it will be within striking distance of Cape Nouadhibou (see map), half of which is a part of the Western Sahara currently under no party’s control. Apart from being a further illegal seizure of Saharawi territory, even the threat of such a move would end Mauritania’s independence because it would give control over the second-city of Nouadhibou and its iron ore exports, permitting Rabat to dictate Mauritania’s policy towards the Saharawi population there and transit to and from the refugee camps.
• Morocco seeks any excuse to clamp down on the Saharawis living under its occupation. Detention of civil rights activists and state-sponsored pogroms could be expected. Indeed, there are current reports of a crackdown on the people of Layoune and Smara.
It is almost 30 years since Polisario showed good faith and agreed a ceasefire contingent on achievement of an act of self-determination by the Saharawis. Since then, the UN Security Council has consistently been played by Morocco and its patron France. It allowed the referendum voter registration to be sabotaged. It maintained MINURSO as a toothless body with an outdated mandate, unable to monitor human rights violations. It permitted massive exploitation of Saharawi natural resources. It failed to force Morocco to enter serious negotiations while allowing it to veto the settlement plan developed by former US Secretary of State James Baker. Since 1975, the Saharawis have been living in refugee camps in Algeria or under a brutal occupation. Guerguerat is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
WESTERN SAHARA CAMPAIGN UK
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